“Pakistan! You’re joking! Why on earth go to Pakistan?” And this was 1980… In those days, Pakistan was off the tourist map; for the staid elderly tourist, it was somewhere in never never land, and the backpackers had not yet discovered its great potential; they only knew the hippie trail in Afghanistan.
“I thought you were going to travel across North Africa and then down to South Africa,” my friend continued in that same incredulous voice.
It was true, that had been my intention, but only the night before I had seen on the BBC, a documentary on the Kalash people of North-Western Pakistan. Flexible, history loving and lured always by something different, my imagination had been caught by the romance of the Frontier and by the exotic nuances of this remote mountain people. I had decided on a slight diversion.
I travelled across Morocco and Egypt and down to Wadi Halfa on the Nile. Then I turned left and took a plane from Khartoum to Bahrain and then by the then last P&O ship afloat, the Dwaka, crossed the Gulf to Karachi. Disembarking among lathi waving police and half naked dhoti-clad port workers, with their long curving grappling hooks, I was suddenly thrust into a strange and bewildering world. Dodging camel carts, rickshaws, horse carts, I flagged down a taxi. Staggering with my over loaded rucksack into the back seat, I gave the driver the name of Jabees Hotel. The purser on board had given me the name when I had asked if he knew of a cheap hotel. Cheap, it was not, being in that range of middle class hotels, but… Within an hour I was having lunch with the manager and was being interviewed on the radio about my thoughts on Pakistan. I said Pakistan was wonderful, great, exciting and I loved it. Thirty years on, nothing has changed. My perception, perhaps, is different, as I see the whole instead of a kaleidoscope of exuberant colours.
From Karachi to ‘Pindi. In those days, trains ran on time and were reasonably luxurious. In ‘Pindi, I wound up at Mrs Davis Private Hotel, a remnant from the days of the Raj. Three meals a day, bed tea in the morning and afternoon tea at five, served by elderly bearers wearing faded white, threadbare starched uniforms, a suite, containing bedroom, sitting room and elegant bathroom, delighted me enormously, as did the stately charm.
I travelled to Peshawar by the blue NATCO bus. They were comfortable vehicles and the journey was interspersed with stops for chai and goodies. A rickshaw from the bus station stopped in the centre of one of the main thoroughfares, midst horse and donkey carts and other rickshaws, outside the New Mehran Hotel.
For several years, this was to become my headquarters while in Peshawar, before I made friends with an elegant Pathan family in the Cantonment and got caught up with the American Club in University Town.
The manager of the hotel, who now manages the Golden Hotel, where I safely ensconce my patients from the valleys, asked me why I did not go down to the border and to the smugglers Bazaar at Landi Kotal (Kaukana Market would later become known as the Smugglers Bazaar). Having already made two trips to the Old City, the suggestion brought instant interest.
Again, I boarded a NATCO bus. This time I was ushered into the back seat, along with half a dozen women dressed in black burqas. The bus was abuzz. It was obvious to me that I had caused a stir, however involuntarily. I had experienced this before in remote areas in other countries, but not to the intensity of this encounter. The woman beside me, started stroking my bare arm beneath the rolled up shirt sleeve. A woman behind me started mussing my hair just above the collar. Slightly discombobulated, I did not, however, feel afraid or even violated in any way, as I felt a sense of humanity pouring from these women. Suddenly the woman, who had been stroking my arm, lifted the headpiece of her burqa. The face was brown, weather beaten and lined. The eyes which held my gaze were as blue as my own. Then the other women followed suit. From then on, until we reached Landikotal, I was part of an animated group communicating mainly in sign language.
At Landikotal I disembarked to get a taxi to go to the border at Torkham. Within 15 minutes of getting into the vehicle, I was involved in a head on collision with another vehicle. Knocked breathless, but unhurt, I was rescued by a young man and an elder one in an Astrakhan cap. It was he who settled the ensuing dispute, while the younger man took me off to his nearby house. House? I was taken aback when faced with the high mud walls and the huge iron gate. The young man spoke English, however, and while his younger brothers showed me how to use a Kalashnikov, his sisters brought us tea and pastries. I was fascinated to see, that although they had no bathrooms or latrine, they had a refrigerator in their main sitting area. The young man I was to meet up with again some years later, when he worked as a waiter at the American Club.
That was my introduction in 1980, to Pakistan and to what was then called the North-West Frontier. My life thereafter has run much the same course as those first few weeks. After Peshawar, I flew by PIA (in those days PIA was an excellent airline, with smartly dressed stewards, planes that ran on time and tickets which were affordable) to Chitral. From Chitral to the Kalash Valley of Bumburet. There I soon found myself in the company of a young Afghan boy whom I wanted to adopt. We became well known in Chitral and delighted a TV documentary crew by dancing together. That year, I was only able to get a week’s permit to stay in the valleys.
The following year I returned, visited Rumbur and wandered into Birir where I was adopted by a Kalash woman, Tak-Dira, and her family. Then came a gap of five years. I had gone to New York where I had lived during the 60s to obtain medical training which took me two years. After qualifying as an emergency medical technician, I fell sick with toxic hepatitis and it was not until ’86 that I was able to return. After travelling around the Northern Areas and to China, I returned to Birir.
At the end of the 80s, I made three trips to Nuristan, travelling over the mountains. Habib (the young boy with whom I spent time in Chitral) again came into my life and on one journey became my guide.
From being a ‘barefoot doctor’ as one journalist called me, I started up an NGO in ’93 (Kalash Environmental Protection Society) and then in ’95 a British charity called the Hindu Kush Conservation Assoc. with the aid of Keith Howman, OBE, who was then the director of the World Pheasant Association. Now, with umpteen projects, funded by embassies and the Provincial Government, as well as the WFP, the publication of four books, and involvement in the preservation of Peshawar heritage, I have a rented office cum residence in Peshawar and a home in Birir, complete with an adopted widow and her four children. My life has been filled with numerous wonderful people and a steady stream of dogs. I now hold dual British and Pakistani citizenship and consider Pakistan my home.